Whichever side of the Brexit debate you are on, things don’t look too good at the moment. Those who voted Leave are seeing the pound fall sharply, jobs disappearing, no trade deals with other countries and the huge amount of work needed just to keep on top of existing relationships, let alone build new ones. The Remain supporters are watching all this with horror, saying “we told you so,” but being unable to do anything about it unless the government suddenly implodes, although that could well happen if the current disarray continues.
However the UK is still a major economic and political power, however sick it may seem at present. Brexit has given it the opportunity to show it is a big player in world affairs in its own right, not as part of the corrupt and overstretched EU. Having failed to achieve anything of note so far in either the talks with the EU or finding alternative friends, it is all the more reliant on making foreign policy gestures to show it will be a force to be reckoned with in the new reality.
So what does the UK do to try and claim international relevance? It has announced it is going to send a warship to the South China Sea to “conduct freedom of navigation exercises“. The South China what? Freedom of what, for whom?
The vast majority of UK voters know little and care less about the South China Sea. The long-running dispute about who owns what there, and who has the right to use which sea lanes, means nothing to UK voters. Intervening in the South China Sea can’t be designed to persuade UK voters that their country is still a respected global power. So what’s the point of fighting someone else’s battle in an irrelevant diplomatic conflict?
The attraction is the word “China”. The UK government is merely posturing, but it is doing so with a purpose. It has fallen for the old lie that if a government says something often enough, this automatically makes it true.
Theresa’s minions are trying to present themselves as anti-Chinese, and the UK as a valued member of an international coalition which opposes Chinese expansion. If they say this often enough it must be true. Then people will think that the creeping Chinese takeover of the UK’s assets, which is being actively encouraged by this government, just isn’t happening – in the same way that Brexit was about “taking back control” and “the will of the people” rather than the newspaper owners who continue pushing it with vicious headlines wanting to avoid the EU Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive, which comes into effect just after the UK insists it will leave the EU.
Taking arms against your own sea of troubles
China is doing in the South China Sea what the Soviet Union was always accused of in Cold War times. It has claimed sovereignty over territory other nations consider to be theirs, and is seeking to police the seas around it. In defiance of international court rulings, it continues building artificial islands which grant it both “additional territory” and “the right to protect it”, regardless of what other countries think about this.
With China recording huge economic growth rates year on year, these sort of actions cannot be ignored. When a country gets as big as China, you have to take a position on it. Slavish obedience is not an option for both political and cultural reasons, but neither is direct confrontation. Most countries take a path of nuanced friendship with China: take the benefits it can offer, but keep it in its place.
If the South China Sea were closer to Western centres of power we would be hearing about the Chinese threat in the same way we now hear about the Muslim threat. If we did, people would ask the same question frequently asked about Saudi Arabia: how can you complain it is sponsoring Islamic terrorism on the one hand, then sell it arms and buy its oil on the other? But if a conflict is taking place on the other side of the world you can continue to deal with China and at the same time have a pseudo-opposition to it, for public show.
Other countries have largely left the various South China Sea claimants to sort of their own mess. The US has long patrolled it to counter China, but wants to pass the buck if possible. Other countries don’t intervene because they are afraid of making the situation worse, still inspired by the Cold War rhetoric of the “Domino Theory“. However there is a conscious effort to present these concerns as purely political: few politicians seem to be objecting to Chinese economic presence in their countries, even though economic conquest is a recognised tool which any enemy would use if they really had designs on you.
When King Boris took Bulgaria into World War Two on the side of Germany he wasn’t particularly fond of the Nazis, nor did he believe in their cause. Nor did he deport a single Jew. But Germany was Bulgaria’s main economic partner, and the welfare of the country made siding with Germany necessary. What Germany couldn’t have dared achieve by force of arms prior to 1939 it had done with economics, and King Boris’ reputation has suffered ever since, whether he is considered collaborator or dupe.
Yet the UK, like many of its former colonies, is only too willing to make itself a hostage to the same fortune. It has openly courted Chinese investment in the national infrastructure, even when this means that without a working relationship with the Chinese nothing can run. Railways, airports, water – China has an important stake in all them, and there is no way in the real world that these facilities will be used against China, or continue to exist on their present terms if China is provoked directly.
The rest of the EU is not so keen on China. If the UK continues its pursuit of the Brexit delusion it is going to need even greater investment from non-EU countries, such as China and India. EU companies will be less inclined to invest, with new barriers in the way and less right to import national staff. The US will be asked to send in the investment cavalry, but won’t be in a position to, which is why it keeps starting wars in countries which have resources it doesn’t.
So the UK wants to play the big man by sending a warship to a place few UK voters care about, to join a diplomatic conflict they understand even less. This is all the UK can do to prove it deserves better than economic domination by the EU, or those same Chinese. But the very obscurity of the South China Sea conflict from a UK vantage point might just convince people that, if China is some vaguely-defined enemy, the UK government isn’t determined to sell everything to it, lock, stock and barrel.
Telling yourself what your government says
These tactics are well worn. Before David Cameron put the Tories back in power the UK had thirteen years of Labour government. These were characterised as years of “spin”: the common perception was that the Labour Party was more interested in the media presentation of its actions than anything it was actually doing.
This was evident in that government’s responses to problems. It would develop a policy designed to produce a particular outcome, both policy and outcome being exactly the sort of thing they knew a certain group of voters wanted to hear. They then declared that because they were pursuing the policy the outcome must therefore exist, regardless of what was really happening.
Immigration has been made into a big issue in the UK, because immigrants can’t vote you out if they don’t like it. Labour decided that if it removed asylum seekers’ right to welfare benefits it would reduce the number of asylum applications. For about a month this happened, so the government declared the policy a success.
However the tide soon turned: within six months the UK was receiving more asylum applications than ever before, despite the fact asylum seekers couldn’t claim benefits. But the government continued to insist that only the one month when the figures went down was statistically valid, the rest a mirage, because they were pursuing a policy designed to make the numbers fall.
The public didn’t see any decline in numbers. But they had also been told that people were only trying to enter the UK to live on benefits for evermore, and there would be no other reason to adopt this policy. So no one wanted to hear when the figures demonstrated the opposite: government policy confirmed an existing prejudice, therefore it must be working regardless, for as long as the government keeps saying it is.
Many countries have a problem with the rise of China because it remains a Communist country. If a one party state gives people in democracies what they want, this might lead them to think that democracy is not necessarily the best system, and a one party state isn’t inherently evil. As the UK has found in the EU, dealing with another culture means respecting its ideals, and there is a limit to how far any country is prepared to go in that direction.
A former great power like the UK has an additional reason to object. Being a great power means imposing your system on everyone else and making it the international standard. The world can be divided into those who do as you do, who are always potential friends because you understand them, and those who don’t, who are inferior because of it. The UK doesn’t want China to succeed because it would mean the rest of the world would have to become more Chinese, not just the UK, and the foundation of the UK’s current and future prosperity would fracture.
Like all other peoples, the British public’s worldview is set by invisible assumptions such as these. So China must always be on the other side, in some ill-defined, ill-understood way. As long as the British government can continue promoting this idea, by complaining about what it does on the other side of the world, people will believe that the UK isn’t really making huge deals with it which may profit China far more than the UK. You don’t do that with an enemy, so there must be some other explanation for these deals, or they must not really exist.
Many of the projects China is looking to invest in are directly government-run, or have been or still are publicly owned. There has long been discussion about how contracts are awarded to these projects, and who in the government is connected with them. There is much to be hidden, and preying on existing assumptions by pretending to bully China in the South China Sea is as good a way as any of doing it.
Send in the tanked
The UK has been involved in many conflicts which make little sense today. The War of Austrian Succession was a big issue at the time, but no one cares what position Great Britain, as it was then, took on it now. However it may be underestimating the fallout from trying to make an issue out of a conflict which engages few of its own citizens.
The US has been through this process. The American public grew disgusted by the Vietnam War because they couldn’t see why the US was mixed up in it. More recently the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, based on the contents of a dodgy dossier, was also considered unnecessary, or downright illegal, and had political consequences for Tony Blair and his party.
Intervention in the South China Sea demonstrates that the UK is still staunchly part of the Western alliance. But there are many other Western operations it is contributing to, which its domestic public understand more readily, whether or not they agree with their government’s position. If the UK wants to show it is a serious independent force it could highlight its genuine contribution to these operations, and increase its commitment both militarily and diplomatically. Instead, it has to send a warship to the South China Sea to show it has force and friends.
This stunt has been forced upon the UK because it has made itself a global joke. Having the British on your side is no longer considered important, regardless of the sacrifices of the troops concerned. No one cares what the UK is contributing now that Brexit has made it a lame duck.
Australia, which was founded as an outpost of the “British race” , has welcomed the increased UK involvement in the South China Sea. After all, it won’t have to get involved itself now. It can maintain its other friendships by the back door, whilst getting someone else to address its own security issues, any take any flak resulting from this.
But Australia is one of the places the UK is keen to do a trade deal with post-Brexit. All such deals are usually quid pro quo. Has the UK been forced into this by Australia as the price of further negotiation? If that is the case, the UK is in no position to protect anyone from China. It is a pathetic spent force, whose only claim to importance is that it is still able to beg a former colony for assistance, on terms it would never have dreamed of accepting before it allowed some tax avoiding press barons to “take back control” in the name of a people they despise.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.